A Midsummer’s Vigil. By Hugo Alfvén
Editor’s note: In Sweden, Midsummer’s Day is a national holiday. Originally celebrated on June 24th, it has since 1953 been a fluctuating holiday, varying each year from June 20th to 26th so that it will always fall on the Saturday after the summer solstice. The day is celebrated in memory of the birth of John the Baptist, but even in heathen times it was held sacred because of its proximity to the solstice. While Midsummer’s Day is the actual holiday, Midsummer’s Eve, with its accompanying festivities, is in folk tradition second only to Christmas cherished as an annual observance. ”I got my first inspiration for the ”Midsummer’s Vigil” rhapsody during the years 18921895, when I used to spend the summers in the outer Stockholm archipelago, and frequently associated with the people of the islands. Out there, the light summer nights are strangely attractive. Green islands, gray skerries – the surrounding sea seems almost musical, laughing when the alburns spawn among the rocks, rippling and foaming like the chords of a harp when the wind caresses the verdure of the islands, roaring when the storm lashes furious waves against the rocks and gravel of the shores. But the most beautiful time of all is when the air is so quiet that the sea and sky seem to have merged, forming a taut, spherical Chinese lantern, and the horizon is no longer discernible. On many of these islands there is much gaiety at Midsummer time. From the newly mown timothy and clover, heavy with honey, comes a strong and heady scent, to which the youths are particularly susceptible. Their bodies grow restless, and they want to dance To satisfy this urge, they wander off to the barn, which according to old tradition among the islands is the only right place for amusements of this kind. The barn might, indeed, have been built for summer night dancing; the floor is even, and pleasantly cool air is wafted in through the open doors. For those whom the ardent leaps have tired, the hay loft provides a pleasant haven. There one might glimpse the dim light of the moon through the cracks in the wall, and in quiet peace enjoy the beauty of nature and of one’s girl. I have been present at innumerable such dances, mostly as spectator but sometimes as musician, for I had the repertoire of the barn dance at my fingertips. At that time I used to play the violin, and was already greatly interested in our folk music.
Gradually I came to feel an increasing urge to express in music something of the delight of the Midsummer’s Eve, the abundance of poetic moods and impressions that I had received through the years. I wanted to sing the praise of the Swedish character and the beauty of Swedish nature at Midsummer, write a hymn of joy in the idealizing language of music. I set to work as in a dream. The Midsummer’s Vigil is a rhapsody, but more precisely termed it is a symphonically constructed tone poem, based on a purely visual program, whose contents are as follows: A group of excited youths is marching along the road on their way to the barn. A number of people have already gathered there, for it is Midsummer’s Eve, and there is going to be dancing, and the beer and akvavit are already flowing. A hoarse bass tries to start the ”Pointing Dance” but does not hit the right notes. People laugh. The squeaky voice of an old woman makes the same attempt, but she also fails, which evokes hilarity among the others. Then the fiddlers take over, and the dancing begins. But tempers have begun to flare, and the first notes of the Pointing Dance are the signal. The quarrel increases in volume, and soon the shrill, whining voices of the old women mix with the roaring of the berserk. They pant and bark in each other’s faces. The excitement rises to the boiling point, and the first blow falls. This releases the anger. With laughter and noise the trouble-makers are thrown out, and the dancing continues. But a young man wants to steal away from the throng with his girl to the peace and the dense bushes of the forest. He whispers in her ear, and she nods agreement. He skips out from the barn on the rapid sixteenths of the first tune, and she follows close behind on the same theme; it is a so-called canon. At the same time the Pointing Dance is sporadically heard in the depth of the orchestra. The dance music gradually fades as they run away from the barn, and soon they hear only the quiet murmuring of the forest. Spellbound, they listen to a melancholy melody, breathed forth by the spirit of the forest with the timbre of a shepherd’s reed. From far away, another of nature’s voices replies with the tone of a lure. Then they hear a gust of wind approaching, and the melody is sounded by the enormous organ of the forest, playing with all stops pulled. But now it is growing light. The sun rises. Its rays make the drops of dew on the flowers sparkle, the buzzing of bees fills the air, all nature is waking up. This makes the two
young people return to reality. Now they want to return to the barn and have one last dance before the fiddlers have to be carried up to the hay loft. Soon they hear again the merry rasping of the fiddles, and as they arrive at the barn the last dance, the’ whirling Jössehärad Polska, is just beginning. The boy is dancing as he never danced before. He is dancing so that his heels hit the back of his neck, and he twirls his girl as easily as if she were a reed. The other youths are not far behind them – shoes crack against the floor, skirts are flying, there is screaming and crying when the girls are thrown up in the air. A tornado rages over the floor”. The Midsummer’s Vigil ends with this whirling climax. It is, I repeat, a paean to the Swedish character and Swedish nature at Midsummer time. This translation was originally published in Music in Sweden = Musikrevy international 1954, p. 11-12 later reprinted in Swedish music past and present = Musikrevy international 1967, p. 12-14 and finally in Facsimile av originalskissen till Hugo Alfvén’s Midsommarvaka, Stockholm 1972.